Playing the Wait-List Game Can Be Rewarding, but Its Not Without Risks

<i> Adler is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

Many travelers are placed on a wait-list for certain events and for various kinds of reservations.

“If you wait-list nine months ahead, the possibilities are very good that you’ll get what you’re after,” said Martha Scott of Glendale Travel. “But if you wait-list a month in advance, your chances are slim.”

But regardless of the wait-list, don’t depend on something opening up. Be prepared with an alternative arrangement.

“Travelers should keep in mind that some discount air fares can’t be wait-listed,” Scott said. “And if the discount fare does allow wait-listing, the space has to open up before the ticketing and payment deadlines for the discount to apply. Otherwise, you have to pay the regular fare, if a seat is available at that fare.”


Not all airlines automatically call passengers or their travel agents to alert them to seats becoming available, some agents claim. “Sometimes we have to follow up, but in many cases, space opening up is given to us through the airlines’ computerized reservation systems,” Scott said.

Another agent, Tom Nulty of Associated Travel in Santa Ana, said: “In many cases airlines don’t hold seats until they finish going through their waiting lists. Canceled seats are returned to the inventory and they may be sold before the airline gets through the wait-list.”

Making a Quick Decision

Airline policies differ on this subject.


A Delta spokesman said: “Canceled seats are held for passengers on a wait-list before they go into the seat inventory, but when a reservation agent phones, you basically have to make a decision at that time.”

United also holds seats aside until it goes through the wait-list, an airline spokeswoman said. “We automatically call wait-listed passengers or their agents. The amount of time a passenger can have to decide whether or not to accept the space is negotiable. But we would give a reasonable amount of time, with 24 hours usually considered reasonable.”

Other airlines may grant more or less time to render a decision, when and if a space opens.

Wait-listing also depends on the season. It is usually more difficult to obtain space in the peak season. “But there are exceptions,” Scott said. “Christmas space to Hawaii may be sold out now, but it seems to clear every year a couple of weeks before the holidays.”


Scott estimated that space for air seats clears about 90% of the time.

Cruise lines also wait-list. Some even have a paid wait-list of potential passengers who have put down a deposit.

Paying to Wait

“Cruise lines may resell the same cabins several times before departure, so chances are good of getting space,” Scott said. “The cruise lines are generally very good about calling you if space opens up, and frank about the chances of this happening.”


Scott said that chances of success are 80% to 90% on a paid wait-list, about 70% on a regular wait-list.

Princess Cruises, for example, offers both a paid and non-paid wait-list. “We wait-list as soon as a departure sells out, and we automatically call the agent if space opens up,” a Princess spokeswoman said.

“On the paid wait list the deposit is refundable. The passenger would have seven days to decide whether or not to take the cabin on either type of wait-list.

“If the space opens up within 60 days of departure, you have to make a full payment. Otherwise, you just follow the normal deposit and full payment procedure.


“Both the paid and regular wait-lists are handled on a first-come, first-served basis, within their respective categories,” the spokeswoman added.

“There is a high cancellation factor and cabins can be sold a second time, but if you haven’t heard within 30 days of departure, your chances are not very good.”

Passengers can wait-list more than one sailing and can be switched back to their first choice at no charge if space opens. “Make sure that information on your choices is cross-referenced on the computer,” the Princess spokeswoman said.

Some Deposits Sought


Tour operators also wait-list their offerings, with some asking for a deposit. A deposit might only be required during those parts of the year when their packages sell best.

As tour operators are faced by having seats and rooms blocked with airlines and hotels, respectively, and have cut-off points at which they have to either fully commit themselves or return the space, they may not wait-list a tour within 21 days of a departure.

Cruise lines may also stop wait-listing three weeks before a sailing date. This is Princess’ policy, the spokeswoman said.

Make sure you find out, when wait-listing for a tour, what the latest point is where you can get that package at the current price.


Some tours are organized around promotional air fares, with stringent ticketing deadlines. Again, once these deadlines have been passed, space may still open, but potential buyers would have to pay the regular, higher fare.

It’s a good idea, if you’re booking air and land arrangements separately, to get the air portion completed first, especially if you want to fly on a discount basis with various advance purchase and other ticketing conditions.

Suppliers may also limit the number of offerings you can wait-list. “We allow people to wait-list a maximum of two departures,” Albert Schmid, president of Far West Travel Corp., Marina del Rey, said.

“If the number of participants in the tour is limited to 40 people, then we would accept 10% to 15% of that amount once the tour is sold out. So only four to six people could be wait-listed for that departure. The chance of more than four to six people canceling is slim.”


Different Policies

Tour operators have different policies regarding how much time is given to decide once there is an opening and when full payment is due.

“We don’t accept bookings made within 21 days of the departure,” Schmid said. “From 21 days to 45 days the consumer would have 24 hours to decide and we require full payment. Beyond 45 days from departure the consumer would have 72 hours, and the normal payment procedure would apply.”

If the price of the package goes up after a traveler is put on a wait-list, the higher rate would prevail. This would be true also of any air or cruise fare.


If space opens on an original choice, after you’ve booked another date with the tour operator, you can switch. However, some tour operators may levy an administrative fee for handling changes.

Some tour operators/cruise lines will wait-list solo travelers if they want to share a room/cabin with someone to prevent paying a single supplement, the amount levied for having an accommodation by yourself.

Hotels tend not to wait-list, Scott said. “The turnover ratio is too high, but some resort properties may wait-list.”